Why JOAN London leant into exposure therapy to smash stigmas around 'vulva'

Kirsty Hathaway shares the importance of tackling taboos head on

Kirsty Hathaway

Executive Creative Director JOAN London


Women would rather talk about their salary or sex lives than their vulvas 

A shocking enough stat on its own in 2023, and that’s before you even start to consider the knock-on effects of all this embarrassment. Namely, a gigantic health crisis for women, girls and people with gynaecological organs. Challenger startup Luna Daily are doing an incredible job at breaking barriers simply by existing, looking to eradicate the fem care category and make washing your vulva as normal as washing your head, knees and toes. But their greater mission, and one that fast became JOAN’s as well, was to make vulvas and crucially talking about vulvas totally bog-standard normal. 

But surely potayto, potato, why focus on the word? 

Why can’t we call it a foof, or vagina, what’s the difference? We hear you, and we’ve called our vulvas anything but as well. But, words are powerful. And so is the absence of them. We’ve been stuck in a ‘vulva’ vacuum, never hearing the word, so never saying the word, and so on and so forth until the end of time.

We wanted to be actively part of the solution and begin to chip away at this vulva shame. Normalising the word was our weapon of mass de-shaming.

Kirsty Hathaway, Executive Creative Director at JOAN London

Or in a more optimistic take, until we try and create some genuine change - and change tends to start with a conversation. And so this five-letter, two-syllable ‘V’ word became the focal point of our creative strategy.

It’s crazy to expect our vulvas to thrive if we can’t talk about them with our friends, or even with ourselves. If we can’t accurately explain to our healthcare professionals what exactly is so goddamn itchy because we’ve never been taught the correct word. And then even if we had been taught the correct word, we’d still probably be too embarrassed to use it. We’re stuck in a cycle of silence, and silence teaches us all, and especially our children, that vulvas are ‘bad’ or somehow shameful. 

So how do we solve a problem like… multi-generational societally absorbed shame? 

We’d signed up to take on a big problem, and it was clear that we needed a big solution (we didn’t yet know how literal that statement would become, as we would later find ourselves projecting an enormous ‘VULVA’ onto the very phallic Tate Modern’s chimney). But from the start, we knew that our ambition for this campaign wasn’t simply to highlight the problem, although that was certainly part of it. We wanted to be actively part of the solution and begin to chip away at this vulva shame. Normalising the word was our weapon of mass de-shaming.

It should now be pretty clear from all of the above that most of us in the UK (and beyond) could benefit from some form of therapy to unpick how we, and our vulvas, arrived at this strange verbal standoff. But sure, we couldn’t help everybody overcome their challenge by using the word vulva, could we? Well no, not technically - but we could make a start. 

How we talked our way to Vulva Therapy 

The road to this idea was not a straight one. We knew there was a deeply entrenched issue, not just because Luna Daily’s research told us so in hard data, but because we ourselves felt an almost visceral discomfort with the word. It became quickly apparent that few of us had ever heard the word vulva outside of an anatomy class, least of all from our own parents.

After weeks of mulling over this doozy of a societal stigma, we realised the answer was right under our noses. The word vulva was no longer uncomfortable for us - in fact, we’d said it so many blooming times by this point we were entirely desensitised (just ask our friends and family!). We’d truly arrived at the place where saying ‘vulva’ was just like saying any other body part, inadvertently undergoing a form of exposure therapy without even trying. Seeing, saying, and hearing vulva on repeat had utterly normalised it.

So why couldn’t we apply this logic to our campaign? We could and we did. We created a Vulva Exposure Therapy Hotline, a tongue in cheek (pre-recorded) dial-a-therapist to help you shake off that societal shame and start feeling good about the word vulva.

Despite the humorous take on therapy (one session has you imagining you’ve lost a dog called ‘Vulva’ in the park and have to yell her name), it was essential for us that we draw from genuine exposure therapy techniques and methodology. We’d unwittingly put our idea through consumer testing, with us (and all those close to us) as the guinea pigs, so we knew the strategy was sound, but we partnered with some real experts to create the audio, including celebrity psychosexual therapy expert Annabelle Knight to ensure that the ‘vulva therapy’ hotline would actually create impact in starting to get people more comfortable with the word. 

Triggering the transatlantic with the word ‘vulva’ 

We wanted all the other elements to play their part in the therapy - getting the word out there big and small, until it seemed even a little more normal. From show stopping ‘triggering’ billboards and other OOH, to social influencers singing head vulva knees and toes (yes really), to the aforementioned projections on London landmarks. We painted the town vulva, so people who felt triggered by what they saw, could simply call the hotline.

And okay, we know that just like real therapy it’s never that easy. One session and you’re ‘healed’, one campaign and the problem is ‘solved’. It takes work and commitment, and in Luna Daily and JOAN London’s case, continued creativity and fresh thinking to keep everyone talking about just why we don’t talk about vulvas. Say the word, smash the stigma - and watch this vulva-shaped space. 

What can be learned from the Exposure Therapy for brands? 

It is great to see brands using their voice as a force for change. To raise awareness of societal-driven problems. Few have done this better than Dove and Bodyform, specifically in the female space. And continuing to beat the drum on their message is a form of exposure therapy. We are more comfortable talking about periods thanks to Bodyform and there’s a more positive conversation happening around ‘real beauty’, challenging us against societal pressures.

Exposure therapy is a really interesting strategic methodology for any brand tackling taboos or more difficult subject matters - or even disruptor brands trying to change consumer behaviour. Building on the message, it follows a graded exposure that helps drive a psychological shift - taking audiences on a journey with you and helping to shift perception. If nothing else, it is just fascinating to learn about. The human brain is a true wonder.

Guest Author

Kirsty Hathaway

Executive Creative Director JOAN London


Kirsty Hathaway is Executive Creative Director at JOAN London

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